Lessons Learned from Gender-Based Violence Reporting
By Eunice Kilonzo
“I have two articles in the ‘Silence and Omissions: A Media Guide for Covering Gender-Based Violence.’ I wrote about the power of survivor-centred reporting in the global handbook”.
Handbook contributor Eunice Kilonzo is an award-winning journalist and content generation manager who formerly worked for the Daily Nation (Kenya).
Reporting on gender-based violence is not the easiest. It is tough. It is disheartening. Listening to the survivors — male or female — is a stark reminder of how closely and commonly such violence exists behind closed doors.
One such case was that of Jackline Mwende, whose hands were chopped off by her husband because of a childless marriage. I learned about her story, by chance, one Sunday afternoon in 2016 while on an otherwise uneventful shift. My colleague had just visited her in a hospital and posted a brief and some of her photos on a work WhatsApp group. It was barely 150 words, but I remember reading it repeatedly. I was shocked. The attack not only left her without hands, but her swollen face had stitches crisscrossing her hairline, eyes, and neck. Later, we discovered that she had lost some teeth and hearing in one ear as a result of the attack.
Her story was more than a brief, I thought. She was alive. Could we hear her story, from her own voice? With the guidance of our colleague, I set out — alongside a driver and the then-photo editor — on the over 100 kms (60 miles) journey to meet Mwende. We tracked her down at her father’s compound, about an hour and a half from Nairobi.
Of all my stories, this was the hardest interview to do. How do I ask questions with tact — in a way that doesn’t reactivate her pain and grief, and cause additional trauma? No one trains you about how to do this kind of reporting. You learn on the job — a tough and dicey place to be.
We got the story; I filed it and went back home.
I woke up the next morning to calls and texts from my peers, asking for Mwende’s contact information. I got emails from organizations, government officials, philanthropists all asking how they could help. The article was picked up by other media houses, political leaders were talking about it; it was a hot topic of national discussion. I was glad that we were having the discussion, not just of the violence but other underlying issues, such as infertility, human rights and the role of our legal system. Gradually, it brought to the fore the different gender perspectives and understanding of GBV in Kenya. Some readers and callers sympathized with Mwende, but were quick to ask: “But what exactly did she do to her husband?” There were deeply-rooted beliefs of male supremacy (and the inverse, powerlessness of women) held by both genders in varying degrees.
The seesaw nature of opinions, not just in the country but among my colleagues in the newsroom, showcases how tough and misunderstood GBV was. Some pushed to tell the story while failing to call it gender-based violence, while others, like myself, opted for a semblance of a survivor-centered approach, where Mwende was at the center of the reporting process.
It was a tough balance, especially in the follow-up articles on Mwende. They included how she got support to go to South Korea to get prosthetics, a new house and seed funding to start a business. I always asked myself, how is this in her best interest while doing no harm, nor exposing her to stigma?
That story paved the way for me to truly understand my role as a journalist: the duty to inform; respect for privacy and confidentiality; ensuring that the reporting is sensitive as it is factually right; thoroughly informing the source of the consequences of appearing in the media; being objective in the reporting and, therefore, not judging, discriminating, and apportioning blame on the survivor.
I am also sensitive to the dilemmas of writing some of these important stories: How soon is too soon to interview a survivor? How do I keep my biases in check? How about my language, diction, and am I using the correct terminology? But more importantly, how do I write in a way that does not shift the focus away from the survivor?
The link to Eunice Kilonzo’s story in the Nation (2016) is: https://nation.africa/kenya/news/bat- tered-woman-says-why-she-remained- in-abusive-marriage-1223988
The link to JiG gender-based violence handbook: https://gbvjournalism.org/book/lessons-learned-from-gender-based-violence-reporting